The Colour Yellow, Prozac, and the Preservation of the Oxford Comma: Coming Out With Depression

I am of the type of person to consider myself disillusioned. Perhaps it was my affinity for devouring classic literature or my particular preference for melancholic music. Whatever it was, like many of my peers, I have become susceptible to the overindulgence of romantic ideals. And being of this somewhat artistically-inclined population of youth who wholeheartedly identify with the aloof and misunderstood, one of my favourite artists is Vincent Van Gogh.

Beloved for his masterful works throughout the mid to late 19th century, a particular idea of Vincent Van Gogh bursts into the mind when mentioned; the vivid movement of a red beard — sometimes flaming but often muted, a portrait of a solemn face modestly brandishing a bandaged left ear, a starry night. And although he was exceptionally gifted at capturing ecstatic beauty in his art, Van Gogh’s life was ravaged and tormented by inexplicable pain.

Posthumously, our idea of Van Gogh has been warped by the glorification of agony. He, whose brilliance was so relentlessly ignored in his lifetime, became a beacon for those of us who also felt dejected and forgotten. For me and many others like me, Van Gogh represented the paragon of the tortured artist.

And it is the beautification of his particular pain that grew to bother me so.

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat -  Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat - Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Very little is known about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Relying upon the expertise of hundreds of professional physicians and psychiatrists can only hint at so much to a man who died at the end of July in 1890; only 11 years after the founding of Wilhelm Wundt’s formal laboratory for psychological research and the subsequent declaration of psychology as a separate and distinct science. So despite the great efforts made to operationally define the madness that plagued him, the choices in physical and mental diagnoses are only really hypotheses of various probabilities.

However, by all accounts of Van Gogh’s life, an underlying mechanism that remained prevalent throughout his life is that of coping. Born with a lesion in his temporal lobe that caused epileptic seizures and suffering from what was probably type one bipolar disorder, Van Gogh often drank alcohol to counter the episodes of anxiety and depression that followed his life. Dr. Théophile Peyron, of whom Van Gogh was a patient, even noted that Van Gogh would regularly try to poison himself by swallowing the lead-based paint in which he worked with — sometimes, he even drank kerosene.

Here is a man who was so deeply troubled that he engaged in self-mutilation, regular drug intake, and eventually died due to injuries sustained in a suicide attempt where he shot himself in the chest. Throughout his entire life, Van Gogh was ostracized. The stigma that this man had to endure in his life became the romantic pity that followed him in his death. We remember Van Gogh as the lover of yellow, the painter of halos, and the master of verisimilitude. But his affinity with the colour may have been the side effect of digitalis — his epilepsy medication — or thujone poisoning through his heavy drinking of absinthe. His ability to see auras in the lights and the stars may have resulted from the swelling of his retinas due to lead poisoning. Van Gogh captured profound beauty, its magnificence being the ultimate testament to his experience of overwhelmingly unrelenting ugliness.

Well this may very well be speculation, despite however well I think I have conveyed it, I remain true to my word. I know from experience how much pain can affect the mind and I know exactly how it feels to be a pariah amongst my peers.

I guess now’s as good a time as any to share that I have depression. Ranging in severity from being slightly bothersome to completely debilitating, the way I live is can be greatly affected by how and when my mental illness chooses to resurface. Having depression can sometimes annoy me and it can sometimes consume me. It has long been something that I accept as a part of my everyday. It’s simply the law of the land, so to say.

This so-called “coming out” with depression is something that is relatively new to our society. Ever since I could remember, mental health was not something to openly talk about. Sure, it’s okay to discuss how tragically beautiful Vincent Van Gogh’s work was, but it’s not okay to discuss how I need to take medication to stabilize my mood. Bottomline, it’s okay to pity those who suffer mental illness but it’s not okay to empathize with them. We tend to glorify those who are remembered tragically while avoiding those who are living painfully. It’s important to show compassion but it’s also important to understand that compassion just isn’t the same as acceptance.

While I can easily say that living in the 21st century makes having a mental illness more bearable — with the development of psychopharmacology and psychiatry in the last century and all— sharing that you have a mental illness is just as alienating as ever. Despite what various support systems have been advertised and what foundations have been established, the public understanding of mental health has largely remained the same since the conception of field of psychology; people who are mentally ill are broken.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear -  Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

This stigma remains ever-present in many facets of life. In the professional setting, it is discouraged to discuss issues arising in the workplace due to mental health in fear of being perceived to be pitiful or incompetent. In academia, students struggling with mental health run the risk of appearing lazy or entitled to privileges that have previously been unnecessary to their peers. In personal relationships, communication is difficult and messy. Partners cannot understand fundamental feelings of the other’s life — understandably so — because how do we express our particular brand of pain to be felt by the ones we love?

This fear of persecution, of being treated like a broken, beaten human being, has made its presence aware to me long before I ever started seeking treatment. I think, in our society, we have a very nuanced image of mental health looks like and what it ought to be. For example, a common misconception of depression that there are the people who have acquire it suddenly and have it take over their lives or there are people who endure it for a period and then “get over” it. Although some cases of depression may resemble the two represented above, individual cases of depression vary in magnitude and length. We think of depression and we think about the depressed, the afflicted, and the damned. Seldom do we think of people who live with depression.

But the thing is, disease and illness is a reoccurring event in life. It shouldn’t be news that people can suffer from mental illness in the same severity as people can suffer from physical illness. There is a tendency to ignore mental illness as a serious issue because it doesn’t have the capability to manifest itself into everyday life in the same tangibility as its physical counterparts. In contrast, having an illness doesn’t have to dictate who you are. It is critical to understand that mental illness doesn’t define you. Having an illness will never replace any of the other qualities that make you who you are.

It is in my opinion that too many people think of treating mental health as a fixing the broken. They think that just because there is a irregularity in the way that your mind works or that there is an instability in your mood, there is something fundamentally wrong with you. And yes, health is sometimes about rehabilitation and recovery but other times, it can just be about living a functional and fulfilling life despite the challenges that you face.

Despite everything, it is undeniable that Van Gogh loved yellow.

And I love to write.